15 October 2014

Visioning Integrity

Here's the problem with teaching the humanities at a public R1: the annual ethics training.

Vince wonders why it is so important he train on ethics every year. 
How does ethics training help Vince? 
Please select all that apply
A. It reminds him of his duties under the law.
B. It gives him the knowledge he needs to make ethical decisions.
C. It reduces the likelihood that he will accidentally violate the law or university policy.

"All of the above" is an implicit option: you can check all the answers.  "None of the above" is probably not.  I'm not sure--I haven't started the ethics training myself yet.  I lifted the question from a colleague's Facebook post.  (Complaining about the ethics training is a campus tradition every October; it's a sign of how preoccupied everyone is with other matters this fall that ethics training snark has been hard to come by.)  If this online training is structured as it has been in past years (we have to do it every year), then the software won't let you move on unless you enter something.  So you have to pick an answer, even though none of them are right.  (A) is only right if Vince doesn't already know the law or if Vince's ethical intuitions are so far outside the norms of human interactions that he won't know the ways they differ from the law.  (B) presupposes that Vince is a moron, in which case it's not clear why the State of Illinois chose to hire him in the first place (although, given the state's history, it's not difficult to imagine a plausible yet unethical scenario in which it happens).  Anyone who has spent time among social sciences faculty has to be looking for a footnote to (C).  "Reduces the likelihood"?  By what factor?  How have the makers of the test determined this causality?   How did they measure it?

I have learned, from these tests, that there is an "ethics officer" in my unit and that I'm expected to rat colleagues out to that person.  Does having that information make me more likely to do it?  I'm honestly not sure.  Pretending not to see a colleague copy her campaign flyers on the department copier seems as likely before the training as after.  It's not a quandary I've faced: principles of fairness and professionalism generally seem to hold in my world, and frankly, the people I work with have limited opportunities for malfeasance: they don't consort with vendors, draw the attention of politicians, enjoy extramural realms of influence, or do much of anything that's worth a bribe.  If something untoward did happen (discovering that a colleague was selling grades, for example, or routinely violating student privacy), there is nothing I learn in the ethics training that would alter the steps I would take to address the situation.

If these are the only three answers, then, and if the words of the question are meant to track with some reality external to the logic of the ethics training itself, then the question is meaningless.  The ethics training does not benefit Vince.  But Vince is Us, and there is a reason why we do the ethics training:
D.  It doesn't. An incarcerated former IL governor decided that his sins could best be expunged by requiring every state employee to perform an annual rite of penance.  Vince will be penalized if he doesn't participate, so the training helps him avoid that consequence.
(D) is the truth of the matter.  (D) describes the alleged benefit to Vince honestly, as (A) - (C) do not. (D) isn't part of the training, and it doesn't even exist as a write-in option.

Teaching the Humanities is all about training students to be able to articulate answers like (D): to reason critically about the information they are given, to reject explanations that or narratives that don't square with the facts at hand, to seek the truth that exists beyond and independently of learning tools like Powerpoint slides and textbooks.  It gets harder and harder to do.  Students increasingly come to college conditioned by their K - 12 training to see education as a process of gaming questions like those that form our ethics training.  They have no expectation that the questions they are asked, much less the answers they supply, will lead anywhere but back to the classroom, the learning management system, or the test itself.  It's a struggle to get them to see that coming up with a D is even possible--much less desirable--and getting them to do it well is even more remote.

That's the job--though it becomes difficult to believe in that part of the university's mission, when the institution itself mandates a deliberate curtailing of precisely those critical abilities.

13 October 2014

The Northwest Passage to the Intellectual World, Right Here, Right Now

[UPDATED with some of Chancellor Wise's remarks, as posted on her blog.]

We are now on a death march.  We have found the Northwest Passage to the Intellectual World, and there is no turning back.

In The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Tristram's father hits upon new shortcut for teaching the young.
"I am convinced, Yorick," continued my father, half reading and half discoursing, "that there is a North west passage to the intellectual world ; and that the soul of man has shorter ways of going to work, in furnishing itself with knowledge and instruction, than we generally take with it....The whole entirely depends," added my father, in a low voice, "upon the auxiliary verbs....Now the use of the Auxiliaries is, at once to set the soul a going by herself upon the materials as they are brought her; and by the versability of this great engine, round which they are twisted, to open new tracks of enquiry, and make every idea engender millions."
It takes Laurence Sterne (and Shandy himself) a while to get to the point, but eventually the reader gets an example of the system:
"Didst thou ever see a white bear?" cried my father, turning his head round to Trim, who stood at the back of his chair: -- "No, an' please your honour," replied the corporal.-- "But thou could'st discourse about one, Trim," said my father, "in case of need?" --"How is it possible, brother," quoth my uncle Toby, "if the corporal never saw one?"-- '"Tis the fact I want"; replied my father, -- "and the possibility of it, is as follows. 
A WHITE BEAR! Very well. Have I ever seen one? Might I ever have seen one? Am I ever to see one? Ought I ever to have seen one? Or can I ever see one?

Would I had seen a white bear? (for how can I imagine it?)

If I should see a white bear, what should I say? If I should never see a white bear, what then?

If I never have, can, must or shall see a white bear alive; have I ever seen the skin of one? Did I ever see one painted? -- described? Have I never dreamed of one?

Did my father, mother, uncle, aunt, brothers or sisters, ever see a white bear?
What would they give? How would they behave? How would the white bear have behaved? Is he wild? Tame? Terrible? Rough? Smooth?
-- Is the white bear worth seeing? --

-- Is there no sin in it? --

Is it better than a BLACK ONE?
Anyone who reads a lot of undergraduate writing has seen this principle in action.  Somewhere along the way to college admissions, the ghost of Walter Shandy teaches students to write at length around the question they've been posed, without ever grappling with the substance.  These articulate but content-free non-answers are decried on pedagogical discussion boards in every social medium.   Are there weary high school teachers and ACT essay graders who have ceased to notice that students aren't actually saying anything?  Or do students consciously employ the strategy as a place-holder, to save some face on an assignment that they don't have the time to do properly but don't want to wholly abandon?

But here's where the despair comes in: the administration of the U of I has also discovered this Northwest Passage to the Intellectual World.  Wise's initial remarks at the meeting, which she posted afterwards on her blog, mapped out the Northwest Passage down towards which she hastens her vociferous faculty critics:
I’ve learned that while the principle of academic freedom is universally viewed as the bedrock of American higher education, what it means, whether there are any boundaries and who gets to set those are much less clear. Campus debates/symposia/lectures by experts about this would be really stimulating and useful....We have the opportunity to be leaders in the ongoing national debate....Many have voiced the importance of finding ways to re-establish a more unified campus community, to deal with the polarization and divisions between people with opposing views, and that they are willing to help. This will take more than a single committee and more than just speeches and messages. Members of my leadership team and I welcome robust, sometimes contentious debate, examination and consideration by different groups that is going on now and should continue if we are all to learn lessons from this challenge.
In the Q &A that followed, Chancellor Wise (and occasionally President Easter) embraced "contentious debate, examination and consideration" with auxiliary verbs, not answers.  Academic freedom?  Would I had seen academic freedom (for how can I imagine it?)  If I should experience academic freedom, what should I say?  If I should never see academic freedom, what then?  If I never have, can, must, or shall see academic freedom in practice, have I ever sseen its effects?  Did I ever see it represented? Described?  Have I never dreamed of academic freedom?

For more than an hour, faculty from many disciplines around the university took to the microphones in the aisles of the Illini Ballroom and asked for specifics about how President Easter and Chancellor Wise square the Salaita decision with their platitudes about academic freedom, diversity, and robust debate.  And for more than an hour, Wise and Easter had little more than auxiliary verbs, about a conversation that is always deferred, never the conversation we're having now.
  • How will the university assert its excellence in the event of AAUP centure?  
  • What measures will the administration take to assure junior faculty that they won't be denied tenure on the basis of their political speech?  
  • How extensively should departments vet the social media presence and  politics of potential hires so as to avoid having a hire revoked at the last minute?  
  • If neither "civility" nor politics, nor donor pressure caused the Chancellor to unhire Salaita, what mistake that he and AIS commit that warranted the decision and that other departments should avoid?  Of the 130 new faculty came to campus this fall, how and by whom was their social media presence scrutinized to ensure that they had not committed offenses similar to Salaita's?  
  • What steps will the administration be taking to ensure that Palestinian students and faculty feel like they, too, are free to express themselves?
This is the conversation about academic freedom.  It's the conversation humanities faculty are having right now, and the conversation that's taking place about us on other campuses, in our professional organizations, in the AAUP and unions, among our colleagues elsewhere.   But here at the U of I itself, wherever the upper administration passes, there is no conversation.  There is only a white bear.

12 October 2014

"Good Enough" Mothers, Cooks, Professors, and Institutions

"Spoonful of cereal" by Scott Bauer, USDA ARS 
Long before I became the Good Enough Professor, I wanted to be the Good Enough Cook.  The urge to write about cooking followed quickly upon my discovery that cooking was a thing I could do. Meals need to be prepared, however--not so much the clever essays about them.  While the Good Enough Cook never became a brand (cooking shows!  frozen entrees!  books!), over the years of marriage and family, I got better at turning ingredients into meals.  I'd still call myself a "good enough cook" though, and I take more pleasure than ever in the designation.

As the world bifurcates into self-proclaimed foodies, on the one hand, and people who cheerfully proclaim their culinary cluelessness, there is more need than ever for the sort of people who can simply get a meal on the table.   Somewhere between the grim parade of meat + starch + vegetable + dessert to which many of our mothers martyred themselves and our palates and the slapdash convenience available today lies a nutritious path of least resistance that the good enough cook seeks out.   She (the good enough cook is often, but by no means always, she) also recognizes her limitations, responds to the stresses of the moment, and embraces compromise.  She rejects the sales pitch of guilt and self-doubt and finds the patterns that work for the people she is responsible for feeding.  

These patterns may involve unethically sourced rotisserie chickens, family bonding over cold cereal and milk in the mornings, and occasional dearths of green vegetables.  Some well-organized weeks, creative, nourishing meals emerge at regular intervals from the slow-cooker. Sometimes mental health requires popping a vat of popcorn, pouring a glass of wine, and calling it a day.  The whole point of being "good enough" is not to form one's own identity around the ability to cook "well," but to cook well enough to meet the needs of one's family members' bodies and souls, to enable them to function independently.

In her own riff on the various ways of being "good enough" applies to college instructors (a blog post that brought some internet traffic my way this past week),  Lily Cho at Hook and Eye goes back to D. W. Winnicott's original formulation of "good enough"-ness:
it’s really useful to remember that Winnicott’s theory of being good enough was first and foremost a way of thinking about parenting .... He talks a lot about illusion and disillusion – how the mother should give the infant the illusion of her constant presence and attendance to the child’s needs, only to slowly disillusion the child of that unfettered availability. Hello, transitional objects! What might this have to do with being a professor? Well, a lot, I think.
Cho acknowledges the well-worn use of the "good enough" trope to negotiate work-life balance, but delves instead into a different academic application of the concept:
Putting the institution in the place of the child in Winnicott’s theory would make it so that the professor’s job would be to provide the institution with the illusion of constant availability, of an unwavering commitment to respond to all of its demands and needs, only to slowly engineer that disillusionment.
       We move from being academics doing something purely because of our love for the job to a more detached relationship where labour relations are more visible. We come to the university as providers of an illusion of our love for this work, but this illusion can only be sustained temporarily. Ultimately, we have to disillusion the institution. We can only love our work within limits and with boundaries.
This relationship between "good enough" professor and institution-as-infant is, as Cho acknowledges, a function of not only of being "lucky enough to be full-time faculty members," but also having a traditional tenure stream position defined by "the 40-40-20 split between research, teaching, and administrative work."  The labor force in higher education is increasingly made up of employees who are paid to perform only one of those dimensions of a faculty position.  For adjuncts, contingent, or NTT faculty, "good enough" to be hired to teach for a semester (or a year or a decade) inevitably implies "not really good enough" to be taken seriously as a contributor to the institution's mission of teaching, research, and service.  

The institiutional logic that puts so much teaching in the hands of faculty institutions deem "[not really] good enough" undermines the merits of understanding one's work as "good enough" in Winnicott's terms.  As Cho concludes, "good enough was not about doing less, but about detaching in ways that actually sustain relationships, and that allow that relationship to thrive."  But of course Winnicott's "good enough" mother is the one with agency to structure the relationship.  The "good enough professor" lacks that power.  

Many "good enough professors" can only understand themselves as "good enough" in Winnicott's positive sense by sustaining "healthy" and "good enough" relationships with students.  Is the "good enough" instructor sufficiently detached from the students to be able to  correct them?  Is the "good enough" instructor sufficiently warm and attached to instill the security that leads to learning?  Is the "good enough" instructor imparting skills and ways of thinking that the students will be able to apply even after the course has ended?  The answers to these questions generally lie well outside the frameworks of institutional validation.  Finding answers is low on many institutions' list of priorities, and end-of-semester evaluations are imprecise instruments for measuring how much students learn.  

It's much easier to be a "good enough cook," despite all the guilt-inducing advertising, pseudoscience, and advice that preys on parental anxieties.  All kinds of cultural pressures validate the parent or spouse who makes food available to the the rest of the household, whether she does it by swinging past a drive-through window more nights than not or by spending hours in a kitchen.  By contrast, "good enough professors" live a paradox: as far as students are concerned, they're the warm face of the institution's concern, the heart of the mission that has drawn students there.  For the institution, though, they exist at the periphery, with none of the academic freedom, research imperatives, or participatory stakes that would otherwise cause them to matter.   Many "good enough professors" value their teaching as "good enough" and strive to improve it, despite their marginalized status and a profound lack of institutional validation.  When the real work of teaching happens in spite of the innovations and reward systems of corporatized higher ed., "good enough" ceases to be nourishing.